The years 1908-09 were a prolific time for Schoenberg: he began composing in the atonal idiom and created a succession of important and deeply subjective Expressionistic works. After 1909, however, the composer suffered a prolonged dry spell, during which he composed virtually nothing and entered a depression. It was not until 1911 that Schoenberg became inspired again, producing more atonal works, but in a more accessible form. At the end of 1911, he wrote the song Herzgewächse (Foliage of the Heart), based on the French poem "Feuillage du coeur" by Maurice Maeterlinck. The song was composed -- at Schoenberg's typical breakneck speed -- for Wassily Kandinsky's journal Der blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a publication featuring the works of modern artists working in many different fields. Herzgewächse is an eccentric little song for soprano, harmonium, celesta, and harp, and is perhaps one of Schoenberg's most remarkable atonal compositions. Though not on the scale of his earlier atonal song cycles or operas, it nonetheless beautifully exemplifies the expressive potential of the atonal idiom.
The song's unique instrumentation is likely the result of Schoenberg's instinctive response to the poem. In a 1912 essay, published along with Herzgewächse, Schoenberg claimed that his text settings were the result of the immediate sonorous effect of the beginning of a poem. Herzgewächse is, in part, a musical example Schoenberg's theory of the relationship between text and music. The harmonium, celesta, and harp in this piece create a delicate, shimmering backdrop to the soprano line; with the instruments and high voice together, the song becomes a fragile treble soundscape. Melodically, Herzgewächse follows Schoenberg's earlier atonal vocal works, with which it shares a kind of athematic, fragmentary character, with small motivic figures appearing and disappearing without really being developed. Texturally, the song is pervasively polyphonic, the independent instrumental parts occasionally coming together to form contingent harmonies.
The song is comprised of four sections, each with a contrasting vocal line. As the song begins, the text describes the poet's "tired melancholy" and Schoenberg sets these verses in the lower range of the soprano. In the second section, the pathos of the text's sickly and gloomy water lilies is evoked musically through the soprano's slowly rising melody and a thickening of the otherwise sparse instrumental accompaniment. In the final two sections, the soprano line reaches remarkable heights, leaping expressively above the increasingly frenetic accompaniment. At the end of the song, the soprano is asked to sing a high F at the quietest possible dynamic level, a feat seldom accomplished convincingly on any recording.